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Belgium aims to attract new player in 2022 5G spectrum sale

The Belgian government has given the go-ahead for 5G licensing, approving a set of rules that could well allow a fourth player into the country’s mobile market.

The green light from the Belgian parliament’s consultation committee is “an important milestone in the deployment of 5G in our country,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a Twitter post.

Those are pretty standard words for any leader, but in this case, he really has a point. Belgium is one of Western Europe’s 5G laggards and this decision on licensing has been a long time coming. As it stands, there is limited 5G availability in Belgium; incumbent Proximus has pockets of coverage, for example, but without the required frequencies the operators have been unable to serious rollout plans.

For a long time, radiation limits got in the way. To put it simply, most of Belgium has stricter limits on emissions from mobile masts than the rest of Europe, while in Brussels the rules are tighter still. And it took a lot of debate before those rules were eased. A committee of citizens and parliamentarians approved changes to radiation laws in Brussels in June and last month, according to the Brussels Times, the regional government rubber stamped the proposals.

So, it’s all go for 5G. Well, almost. With the 5G auction rules now approved by the national government, the sale should be able to take place in the first half of 2022, with ministers predicting operators will launch services before the end of the year.

As Telecommunications Minister Petra De Sutter pointed out, regulatory body the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT) needs up to six months to ready an auction after the publication of the rules in the country’s official gazette, which means the country is looking at the second quarter of next year. With operators then requiring “a few months” for the actual rollout, 5G services should be available to Belgian consumers and businesses by year-end. A few months sounds a little optimistic for 5G rollout, but the operators have been preparing for a long time, so it should be feasible, at least for fairly small-scale service launches.

But for De Sutter, the big news is around the potential arrival of a new competitor.

The auction rules allow for a fourth mobile operator to enter the market, “with potentially positive consequences for all Belgians who are currently paying high prices for their GSM subscriptions,” De Sutter said.

As it stands, the market is for the most part split between the big three operators: Proximus claims around 40% of the market, with much of the remainder split between Orange and Base, and a handful of full MVNOs together serving just over 9% (see chart).

While there are examples of European markets in which a fourth operator has successfully shaken up competition, the most obvious being Iliad’s launch in France a decade ago and more recently in Italy, such a move would be a big ask in Belgium, where the population is much lower. A big ask, but not out of the question, of course.

However, De Sutter added that “the option of a B2B player entering the market is also not excluded,” which perhaps makes more sense.

“Such a player would primarily focus on 5G business applications and thus ensure more innovation where the greatest 5G potential has been identified, which is also good news,” she said. “We leave it to the market to decide where they see room for additional competition.”

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